Random acts of kindness and generosity by the local community are regularly witnessed by us at Doorway. Not only do we receive both financial and food donations but we also are blessed with offers of contribution in kind, people’s valuable time and various other offers of assistance which enable to us to continue to provide an extremely necessary service to those who are most vulnerable and marginalised.
However, it is a sad truth that we live in a society where many people can be very quick to judge others for their misfortunes, make instant assumptions about those less fortunate, and condemn them to a fate that they feel they deserve.
And, unfortunately, this is inflamed by regular reports in the national media, particularly over the last year of welfare reforms, calling people “benefit scroungers” and far worse.
So imagine our surprise when a breaking news story surrounding the placement of metal spikes outside a block of flats in London, to deter rough sleepers, hit the headlines last month and initiated a massive national public outcry. Through the power of social media the story went viral and resulted in over 130,000 people signing a petition on change.org to demand that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, enforced removal of them.
Not only did the public response ensure that the spikes were removed from outside the block flats but subsequently others were also taken away outside Tesco in Regent Street, London and a branch of Halifax in Swansea. The latest news (this week) is that barriers placed over warm air vents to deter rough sleepers in Glasgow have been removed by a guy called Gary who states that he is a “citizen vigilante” and these acts have now been backed up by various protestor groups and homelessness organisations.
Now I applaud the reaction by the general public and I am truly heartened to hear that the power of the masses can bring about change so quickly and effectively but, and it’s a very big but…
The sad truth is that placing metal spikes to deter rough sleepers is only the latest in a long line of deterrents employed by various different businesses and councils as anti-homeless measures.
Measures introduced to prevent rough sleeping or other public antisocial behaviour, such as skateboarding, are now officially termed as “hostile architecture” or “disciplinary architecture” as the means to describe any type of urban architecture that is designed to influence public behaviour.
And, since the emergence of hostile architecture in the 1990’s, councils have been coming up with increasingly innovative ways of preventing the public from participating in any type of general antisocial behaviour in open spaces. Examples include metal brackets attached to benches or low walls to deter skateboarding or the Mosquito technology devices to prevent young people gathering in public places.
More subtle methods specifically targeting rough sleepers include benches designed to discourage sleeping which can be found all over the country but are so common that the public doesn’t even notice them. Different designs include individual bucket seats, vertical slats or large armrests between seats and wall railings which only allow leaning instead of sitting or lying. Other measures such as fencing off parks, closing down public toilets overnight or even strategically placing prickly plants in public areas have also been introduced without us realising.
And let’s not forget the draconian methods employed by Westminster Council back in 2009 where rough sleepers where hosed with water, whilst bedded down at night, as a “psychological bullying tactic” thereby preventing them from being seen in public areas.
So, actually, at the end of the day we are simply enabling the important discussion to drift away from the topic of how we support rough sleepers through the process to finding a stable secure home to the topic of whether or not we should allow them to sleep on the streets or force them to walk around 24 hours a day and “treat them like pigeons”